Last Novembers Democratic victory catapulted party leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel into prominence. But its not just those with a capital D after their names whose fortunes are on the rise these days. The changeover on Capitol Hill has reordered virtually every aspect of Washingtons political culture. In so doing, it has strengthened the hands of a slew of unelected Democratic power playersHill staffers, lobbyists, political consultants, activists, fund-raisers, even socialiteswhose sway is often all the greater for being wielded largely behind the scenes.
Of course, almost every Democrat in town is feeling pretty good about himself lately, and coming up with a comprehensive list of those whove seen their power enhanced in the new Washington would keep us here through 2008. But some of the capitals new influence brokers havent received a level of attention commensurate with their clout. As we gear up for the major political battles of the next two yearsfrom Iraq to congressional oversight to the presidential racehere are a few of this citys under-covered inside players wholl now be getting their calls returned more quickly than ever.
The Democratic takeover of Congress wont change the composition of the executive-branch
commissions that write and enforce key regulations, and that remain largely majority Republican. But that doesnt mean the shift on Capitol Hill wont dramatically affect those commissions balances of power.
Perhaps the best example is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is gearing up to address a host of thorny issues, from media consolidation to net neutrality. The FCCs two Democratic commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, will still be going up against three Republicans, including Chairman Kevin Martin, but theyll have a lot more weapons in their arsenal. Thats because theyre close with newly powerful Democratic committee chairs like John Dingell, Ed Markey, and Daniel Inouye, wholl use high-profile hearings to advance the Democratic commissioners priorities. With the help of their allies in Congress, Adelstein and Copps will put [the Republican commissioners] in a vise in the hearings, according to one Washington Democrat who follows communications issues. Its like the cavalry coming over the hill.
What will that mean in practice? On media consolidation, it should allow Adelstein and Copps to begin laying the groundwork for reversing former chair Michael Powells 2003 round of deregulation, which made it easier for big media companies to own multiple outlets in a single market. And it will almost certainly ensure that additional GOP deregulatory efforts are dead on arrival.
On net neutrality, the effects could be even more far-reaching. Already, the commissions Democrats have been working on an ad hoc basis to get telecommunications companies to agree to adhere to the neutrality principlethat is, not giving discounts to big Web content providers while charging little guys more. But their task will be much easier with Markey, a strong neutrality supporter, chairing the telecommunications subcommittee. Whether or not Markey succeeds in passing legislation ensuring neutrality, as hes said he intends to, his mere presence gives Adelstein and Copps vastly increased leverage. Says one expert: Its certainly going to put a lot of telecom companies on notice that they shouldnt engage in discriminatory practices unless they want the wrath of the Hill.
Oversight figures to be perhaps the most important task of the next Congress, and many of the key areas that demand investigationfrom torture to warrantless wiretapping to manipulation of Iraq intelligencefall at least in part under the authority of the judiciary committees. The trick for Democrats will be to delve deeply into the failures and cover-ups of the Bush administration in these areas, without allowing the GOP or the press to portray their probes as needlessly partisan, vindictive, and backward-looking.
On that score, House Judiciary chair John Conyers (D-Mich.) has already made some Democrats nervous. Last year, he raised the possibility of impeachmentwhich Republicans quickly seized on to argue that a Democratic Congress would plunge the nation into turmoil. The impeachment talk was quickly slapped down by Nancy Pelosi, but fears remain in Democratic circles that Conyerss desire for justice could undercut the partys effort to present an image of constructive bipartisanship.
Thats where Perry Apelbaum, the committees staff director, could come in. Apelbaum has worked for Conyers since the congressman became the top Democrat on the committee in 1995, and by all accounts he enjoys his bosss absolute trust. But he also has good relations with the committees Republican staffin November, he had colleagues on both sides over to his house to watch the Ohio StateMichigan game. Just as important, as the top committee lawyer for the Democratic minority in the late 1990s, Apelbaum played a role in the impeachment defense of President Clinton, so hes seen firsthand how politically motivated congressional investigations can backfire. Perry would be a moderating influence, says one Democratic insider who has worked closely with him.
None of this means hell pull any punches: Apelbaum was the driving force behind two hard-hitting reports released last year by committee Democrats, on the various Bush administration violations of the Constitution, and on voting problems in Ohios 2004 election. Julian Epstein, a Democratic lawyer and strategist who held Apelbaums job in the early 1990s, calls him probably the smartest attorney that I have ever worked with. If Democrats succeed in using oversight to expose and correct GOP failures, without in the process damaging their own image with voters, Apelbaum could be a key reason why.
Thanks to the Democrats win last fall and the early excitement over the 2008 presidential contest, perhaps no state now has a more influential congressional delegation than Illinois. Rahm Emanuel, who masterminded the victory as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, is now a member of the leadership, and almost certainly destined for bigger things. The states senior senator, Dick Durbin, is the new majority whip. And then, of course, theres Barack Obamamaybe youve heard of him?
But you may not have heard of the Illinois political consultant whos helped engineer the rise of all three: David Axelrod. A former prodigy reporter at the Chicago Tribune who left to run Paul Simons successful 1984 Senate campaign, Axelrod is the brains behind the Prairie States newfound political prominence. But though he remains close to Emanuel, and every four years he runs Chicago Mayor Richard Daleys reelection campaign, Axelrod has never had a viable presidential candidate. (Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon calls him the best guy in the business without a ring.) Thats about to change. In recent months, according to a close associate, Axelrod has cleared his decks for Obamas presidential run, and has lined up his partner, David Plouffe, to be the senators likely campaign manager. If Obama makes it to the White House, or even gets close, Axelrod could be the new Karl Rove.
Since 2003when Axelrod backed Obamas Senate bid despite the presence of several better-known candidates in the Democratic primary fieldthe two have by all accounts undergone a kind of mind meld, talking every day and mapping out strategy. Axelrod is a skilled image-meister, but his all-around political sense is equally impressive. As a state senator preparing for his Senate run, Obama steered an important piece of death-penalty-reform legislation through the body. The bill was close to Obamas heart, but, as one adviser from the Senate campaign notes, it also represented the pet issue of the Chicago Tribunes editorial board, which ended up endorsing Obama in the hotly contested primary. And it was Axelrod who helped Obama secure the crucial position as the legislations front man.
Just as Rove is known for his tendency to attack his opponents area of greatest strength, and for his insistence on ultra-tight message discipline, Axelrod has his own signature style. Its characterized, say associates, by a willingness to let his clients be who they are, and to spend months identifying a candidates most appealing traits, then working to bring those out. In other words, expect Obamas campaign to ditch the kind of awkward, staged photo ops that have backfired on previous Democratic candidatesthink Dukakis in that tankin favor of efforts to convey the senators natural charisma and intelligence.
Republicans didnt just use their time in power to increase inequality and impeach the president. They also created their own high-powered party scene. Over the last few years, Julianna Glover Weiss, a former press aide to Vice President Cheney, emerged at the center of Washingtons new conservative social whirl, hosting must-attend events for the right young things of the Bush-DeLay era.
Bush may have two more years, but that era is over. With Republicans on the outs, Glover Weisss partieswhose cachet always rested on their status as centers of power across a range of fieldshave lost much of their luster. Which begs the question: Whos D.C.s next premiere hostess?
Nancy Reynolds Bagley looks like a pretty good guess. The daughter of Democratic fund-raiser Smith Bagley and stepdaughter of Elizabeth Bagley, Bill Clintons ambassador to Portugal (and a formidable socialite in her own right), Nancy is known for the bipartisanship of her guest lists. But as a committed and connected Democrat, theres no doubt that last falls results have upped the value of her hand. Shes close with Nancy Pelosia fashion leader, according to the New York Timesand California Senator Barbara Boxer, among other newly powerful Democratic women.
Bagley spent two years in the 90s working on the Clinton health plan, then switched gears to take over the editorship of the society magazine Washington Life from her mother, Vicki. She skillfully parlayed the job into a position as one of the leading hostesses of Washingtons younger generation. Shes got the list, and the list is all, says Washington Times social editor Kevin Chaffee. When you go to her parties, you see people who will make it worth your while to go. With Democrats now in control, thats more true than ever.
During the last decade, Grover Norquists Wednesday meetingsat which assorted GOP insiders from across Washington would meet to plot strategyplayed a crucial role in the Republican governing machine. With Democrats now back in power, theres a new power-meeting on the block. Its held on Tuesdays, not Wednesdays, but its guest listwhich includes a range of progressive activists, Hill staffers, and Democratic consultantssuggests it could rival Norquists from back in the day as a center of Washington influence.
The Tuesday meetings organizers are Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey, of the Campaign for Americas Future. Since last year, Borosage and Hickey have skillfully positioned their organization at the forefront of efforts to build the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. As the leaders of a coalition of liberal groups that includes Moveon.org, USAction, and a number of activist labor unions, they showed their clout two years ago by playing a crucial role in the successful fight against Social Security privatization. Last fall, they used hard-hitting TV ads to help knock off several GOP incumbents. And now they plan to help shape the issue terrain for 08the coalition just released an energy-independence platform, and a universal health-care plan that has already drawn attention in congressional hearings.
Still, the center of gravity for the coalitionnow called Americans Unitedis definitely outside Washington, and the group uses classic grassroots tactics to exert influence. When it wants the support of hesitant lawmakers, it typically demands a meeting back home. Its either they meet with us or we publicize the fact that they didnt meet with us, says Hickey. But either way it is a community event with lots of publicity. Could Borosage and Hickey meld their coalitions outside-the-Beltway energy with their own inside-the-Beltway access to decision makers to become the Grover Norquists of the left?
Perhaps no one is better positioned to take advantage of the Democrats improved fortunes on K Street than George Crawford, Nancy Pelosis former chief of staff. Crawford left Capitol Hill in mid-2005, and is one of the few senior Pelosi staffers to make the recent leap to K Street. One measure of his influence: he estimates that when he departed the Hill, he had personally had a hand in hiring around fifty of the fifty-five employees in Pelosis office at the time.
Many veteran Hill staffers make their careers mastering some intricate area of politics or policy. Crawford, however, was a generalist, and his new firm doesnt specialize either. You name em, we got em, he says of his new client base, which includes everyone from ExxonMobil to College Loan Corp. The common thread is their dramatically diminished prospects under Democratic congressional controland hence their sudden need for an insider like Crawford. After years of industry-
friendly Republican governance, many companies face new regulation, subsidy rollbacks, and perhaps even congressional investigations.
One of Crawfords most controversial recent signings is Amgen. The pharmaceutical company hopes to short-circuit one of the first, and most cherished, items on the Democratic Congresss to-do list: a plan to allow the government to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices for seniors on Medicare. That measure passed the House within the first 100 hours, but faces stiffer opposition in the Senate, where Finance Committee chair Max Baucus has been skeptical (see The Good Soldier, below ).
Crawfords client list may not be popular with his former colleagues, but the rather old-fashioned former staffer himself still is. (Like his mentor, legendary Florida Congressman Claude Pepper, he does not refer to any representative by their first name.) Crawford, who spent years laboring on the Rules Committee for Pepper, and later for Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, has developed close relationships with most of the current House leadership, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and their staffs. Still, Crawford is realistic about what his assistance can achieve. People are looking for insight into how [Pelosi] operates, the dynamics of the Democratic caucus, he says. I can help there … But no matter what, some industries are going to have a relatively tough time here.
Democrats may have picked up a few red-state seats last fall by running culturally conservative candidates. But theres no question that on bread-and-butter economic issues and on Iraq, the caucus, and Congress as a whole, shifted decisively to the left. Thats good news for the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), a faction of congressional Democrats (plus liberal Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont) that works to advance progressive priorities. The group gave money and support on the stump to help elect eight new progressive Democrats, almost all of whom ran on an antiwar platform. Overall, it has seen its membership grow from fifty-seven in 2005 to sixty-seven and counting today, making it the largest caucus within the party by some margin.
Now the CPC is well placed to exploit its electoral success. Nancy Pelosi, a former member, dropped out of all caucuses upon becoming speaker, but the group boasts many of her closest congressional allies, including George Miller, Rosa DeLauro, and up-and-comer Michael Capuano. Even more important, eleven current members are new House committee chairs, including powerful figures like Charlie Rangel at Ways and Means, John Conyers at Judiciary, Henry Waxman at Government Reform, Barney Frank at Financial Services, and Miller at Education and Workforce. Indeed, the Houses conduct of oversightperhaps its most crucial task over the next two yearswill be carried out largely by CPC members.
The groups new prominence makes Bill Goold a man to watch. Over a twenty-nine-year career on the Hill, Goold has worked for a long list of progressives from both houses, including Sanders, Tom Harkin, and Rush Holt. Since mid-2005, as the CPCs executive director and only paid staff memberhis salary is funded by member duesits been Goolds job to increase the caucuss influence. Hes doing well so far. Aside from boosting the CPCs numbers, Goold has, by all accounts, brought a new energy and focus to its activities. This is the best-organized caucus since I have been here, since the caucus was formed, says Julie Nickson, chief of staff to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the group.
Over the next two years, Goold and the CPC will be at the forefront of Democratic efforts to confront the White House over Iraq. Last month, caucus leaders introduced legislation that would repeal congressional authorization for the use of force, and require the president to withdraw troops within six months. Theyll also be a force for promoting economic fairness, election reformincluding public financingand energy independence, reducing poverty, and fighting global warming. More broadly, Goold is working with outside-the-Beltway activist groups like Moveon.org to position the CPC as the congressional voice for the growing grassroots progressive movement.
Not everyone agrees that the CPCs renewed prominence is a good thing for the party. Many of the Democratic gains last fall came in swing or GOP-leaning districts, and those seats will be fiercely contested again in 2008. If the CPC and its allies succeed in pushing Pelosi to adopt an agenda thats too far to the left, some new members could be placed in jeopardy. She will be under intense pressure from the more liberal wing of the party to do some things that could be damaging to her, says Bill Andresen, a lobbyist and former Democratic Hill staffer whos active in moderate Democratic circles. Still, as the leadership inches ever closer to the CPCs position supporting withdrawal from Iraq, Goold could be even more influential.
Jacobson, a former finance director for the Democratic National Committee, has long been a major player in party fund-raising circles. But as one of the newest members of Hillary Clintons ever-growing political apparatus, she could be more valuable than ever.
Jacobson has deep ties to the New Democrat movement that helped bring Bill Clinton to power in 1992. She was a key fund-raiser during that campaign, and has since worked closely with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and with Evan Bayh, the moderate Democratic senator from Indiana. Her husband, the pollster Mark Pennwhose influence with Hillary can scarcely be exaggeratedpioneered efforts in the Clinton White House to target moderate swing voters, and is now doing the same thing for the former first lady. When Bayh announced last month that he wouldnt run for president, Jacobson quickly signed on with Hillary as well.
The New York senator hasnt exactly been struggling to raise cash lately. But Jacobsons vast Rolodexand her reputation for hosting parties, with Penn, that have some of the highest-powered guest lists in Washingtoncould make her as valuable for her ability to help win over influential friends to Hillarys cause as for the dollars she brings in. She is able to find people who may not be the usual suspects, says Linda Moore Forbes, a top aide to Bayh who has worked closely with Jacobson for years. Especially folks forty and younger, who want to get involved and have a lot to contribute, not only in terms of finance, but [who] also have really good ideas and want to be part of a cause.
Not everyones a fan. Jacobson is part of the slash-and-burn school of fund-raising, according to one person whos also active in Democratic money circles, and who argues that Jacobson is too focused on extracting an immediate contribution from potential donors, rather than building ongoing relationships. Ive worked with some pretty tough cookies, but shes one that I would put at the far extreme. Already, Hillary has been fighting the perception that her nascent campaign puts cold calculation above sentiment and conviction. Jacobsons take-no-prisoners style may not help.
In recent weeks, some reform-minded Democrats have been arguing that, despite the new lobbying restrictions Congress just passed, the party needs to do more to distance itself from K Street. But the fact remains that, under current law, neither party can expect to govern successfully without keeping open the lines of communication between Capitol Hill and Washingtons ever-expanding lobbying community. And Jonathan Jones, who recently resigned as chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to join mega-lobbyists Johnson, Madigan, Peck, will be key to ensuring that happens.
Jones first worked for Carper as governor, and came to Washington in 2000 when his boss was elected to the Senate. In recent years, he has emerged as a crucial bridge builder between lobbyists and Senate Democrats. Two years ago, he helped found Third Way, a policy and strategy group supported by centrist, pro-business Senate Democrats like Carper, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. That same yearalong with Paul Bach, chief of staff to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.)Jones began holding, every other Monday, a Bi-Weekly Lobbyist Meeting. The confabs, which brought together Democratic Senate staffers and supportive lobbyistsmany of whom were former Hill staffers themselveswere intended, according to an invitation, to strengthen ties to Democrats in the business community. Rather than concentrating on specific sectors, the meetings attracted K Street Democrats from a range of industries, and focused on areas of mutual interestencouraging innovation, and limiting class-action lawsuits, for instancewith an eye to helping Democrats political prospects. They seem to have started a trend: House Democrats quickly established similar meetings of their own, and even the office of Pelosi, whos never been associated with the partys lobbyist wing, began its own formal outreach to lobbyists the following year.
In his new job, Jones figures to be an effective advocate for his corporate clients, who represent a range of sectors, including financial services and health care. Because his old boss, Carper, is known as a believer in free markets, Jones already has good relationships with much of the business community. Its different than coming off of Feingolds staff, says Pat Griffin, a prominent Democratic lobbyist and consultant, referring to the liberal Wisconsin senator. Much of Joness new workload could involve preparing politically connected clients to face oversight hearings run by his former Democratic colleagues. There will be a lot of people who will be interested in trying to navigate that, says Jones. And we will be helping them to do so.
Jones also expects to remain active in Democratic efforts to forge additional links between Capitol Hill and the lobbyist community. The Monday meetings were disbanded last year amid concerns about Democrats appearing to have a K Street Project of their own. (There was a perception issue, he says. [Our meetings were] very, very different.) But Third Way has begun a series of similar meetings, in which Jones says he plans to be involved. If Congresss more liberal Democrats are serious about distancing their party from the lobbyists, they may have Jones and his friends to contend with.
In Washington, campaign season never really ends, but it does usually slow down for a few months. This year, however, the next battle for the House began the moment that Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as speaker. Already, candidates are being recruited and opposition researchers working overtime. That bestows extraordinary influence on John Lappone of the lesser-known architects of the Democratic victory last Novemberand his bare-knuckle brand of campaigning.
During the past election cycle, Lapp was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and oversaw the committees vital independent expenditure program (IE). After the new Congress was sworn in, the thirty-five-year-old turned down several offers from Democratic presidential contenders to turn media consultants McMahon Squier & Associates into McMahon Squier Lapp & Associates. His mission instead: to help Pelosi keep her job after 2008.
Lapp enjoys outsize influence thanks in part to recent changes to campaign finance legislation that allow political parties to raise more money, as long as parties spend the extra funds without any communication with the candidates. Consequently, last year DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel couldnt tell the committee how to spend more than half of the millions hed raised. This was an agonizing restriction for Emanuel (who is described by a friend as the biggest control freak in Washington), but ultimately it didnt matter, because the job fell instead to Lapp, who was able to work around the problem. Channeling his mentor, with whom he has an almost symbiotic relationship, Lapp embraced a take-no-prisoners strategy, using strike teams to do research and rapid response, and essentially running dozens of shadow campaigns from the DCCCs Washington office. Lapp struck particularly hard in red districts, and at his command last-minute DCCC attack ads flooded competitive races.
Lapp represents the new breed of Democratic campaign consultants, who are just as comfortable with bloodletting as their Republican counterparts. His campaign philosophy is to stick it to them, he says. You put your foot on their neck, and dont stop until they get to the morgue. Look for that attitudeand Lappto take center stage in the next election.
Pelosis chief of staff, John Lawrence, is newly powerful for the obvious reason: everything on the speakers plate passes through his office. Lawrence is a wonky, experienced Capitol Hill operator who spent three decades as a top aide to George Miller, perhaps Pelosis closest ally in the House. But his forte is policy. He has served as top Democratic staffer on the Education and Workforce Committee and the Resources Committee, and as a top aide to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He also has solid bipartisan bona fides: as Millers top Health, Education and Welfare staffer, he helped write the No Child Left Behind Act.
Expect Lawrence to also play a pivotal role in managing one of the Democrats greatest challenges: how to deal with the lobbyists of K Street. Late last year, as the likelihood of a Democratic electoral victory grew, the semiregular meetings with lobbyists held by Lawrence and other top leadership aides grew increasingly popular. That relationship has continued in the aftermath of the win. But now, though House Democrats remain willing to solicit campaign contributions, theyre also eager to demonstrate that theyre serious about ending the Republican culture of corruption. Lawrences new role will require him to reconcile these diverging goalsto show voters that his party represents a more honest alternative to the GOP, without needlessly turning up its nose when Washingtons lobbying community can be useful. Its a delicate balancing act, and in many ways Lawrence is the man on the tightrope.
In 2001, President Bush came into office with his sights set on the trial lawyers. By enacting tort reform, which would limit the amount of damages plaintiffs could seek, Bush and Rove hoped to deal a deathblow to the political clout of a sector that had become crucial to Democratic fund-raising. There is no question that Republicans tried to do everything to destroy them, says a Democratic lobbyist who followed the issue. This was not: One for me, one for you; three for me, three for you. This was: I want you to die.
As things turned out, the trial lawyers did not die. Only a small piece
of Bushs tort-reform agenda made it through Congress, and in last falls midterms, perhaps no professional group came out with their political reputation more clearly enhanced. As usual, the trial lawyers contributed more money by far to Democratic candidates than any other financial sector. In addition, last year the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America) for the first time worked to elect candidates to the House. And, for good measure, fourteen out of the eighteen trial-lawyer candidates won their races, helping to bury once and for all the notion that the slick trial lawyer label is a political killer. The near-death experience may only have made them more powerful: When everyone is trying to kill you and you survive and you fight back tough, you gain tremendously, says the Democratic lobbyist.
The person who fought back the toughest was Linda Lipsen, the AAJs top lobbyist. Lipsen is known as an honest but aggressive advocate who it pays not to get on the wrong side of. Over the next two years, shell be working to capitalize on the trial lawyers impressive performance last year. With only a slim Democratic majority, its unlikely shell be able to go fully on the offense in the next two years. But, she says, she may lay the groundwork for future gains by exploiting the growing split between business and culturally conservative Republicans on the Hill. Attempts by the administration, for instance, to use executive-branch rulings to preempt state safety regulations have raised the hackles of some GOP advocates of traditional values. And if the trial lawyers match their impressive 06 showing by helping to elect a Democrat to the White House in 08, Lipsen will be perfectly placed to reap the rewards.
Joshua Marshalls blog, Talking Points Memo (TPM), came of age in the era of Republican dominance. Marshall, who has written for the Hill, the American Prospect, and the Washington Monthly, synthesized the personal, outrage-driven perspective of liberal sites like the Daily Kos (which started after TPM) and the original reporting provided by traditional news organizations. And he has somehow figured out a way to make it financially viable.
Some of the sites key moments were also defining moments in the GOPs rule. Marshalls tireless reporting on Trent Lotts praise for Strom Thurmond helped trigger the Senate leaders fall from power. But TPM really came into its own over the last two years, during the Social Security debate and the Jack Abramoff scandal, when Marshall engaged his readers in a sort of cooperative news-gathering enterprise. The site grew to include a group blog, TPM Caf, a campaign blog, Election Central, and an investigative arm, TPM Muckraker, with full-time Washington and New York reporters digging up political dirt under Marshalls direction.
Now that Democrats have taken over on Capitol Hill, Marshalls power has, if anything, grown. He and his reporters have shown no sign of going easy on the new regimethe site was quick to catalog the ethical lapses of Alcee Hastings and Jack Murtha, who unsuccessfully sought prominent leadership posts late last year. More importantly, with Democrats in charge of committees, TPMs excellent sources are likely to shovel the site plenty of muck dredged up by congressional investigators. The site is poised to act over the next few years as a kind of vital feedback loop for Democratic insiders and plugged-in progressivesas both a clearinghouse for readers eager to keep up with the investigative onslaught, and as a key driver of that onslaught through its original reporting. With that in mind, Marshall is planning to beef up the sites Washington presence by hiring a new set of D.C.-based editorial staffers to keep an eye on Congress and the federal governmentand to keep the Democrats honest.
One of the few areas of foreign policy where President Bushs record has received wide praise has been combating AIDS in Africa. Stiffened by pressure from its evangelical Christian base, the administration has significantly increased funding for efforts to fight the disease. Still, with millions of Africans continuing to die of AIDS each year, and more than 1 billion people globally living on less than a dollar a day, theres plenty more that could be done to help the worlds least fortunate.
If these issues are to grow in prominenceor even to remain on Washingtons radar at allSusan McCue will be crucial. Last month, McCue ended her seven-year tenure as Harry Reids chief of staff to head up the ONE campaign, Bonos Washington-based effort to fight global AIDS and extreme poverty. As the 2008 presidential race heats up, she plans to use her Hill connections and experience, her media and communications savvy, and her organizational chops to put the problems of AIDS and poverty on the political front burner.
McCue has unassailable credentials as one of Washingtons premiere inside players. She began working for Reid in 1990 after waiting tables in Georgetown, and quickly rose through the ranks to become press secretary. After a brief period working as a political consultant in the late 90s, she returned to Reids office as chief of staff. By all accounts, McCue was crucial in conceiving and implementing Senate Democrats vastly improved messaging and communications strategy over the last two years. And Reid has had no closer adviser and confidant. The normally poker-faced Nevadan choked up at McCues recent going-away party, telling the crowd, Shes like one of our children … shes part of our family. Had McCue stuck around, shed likely have been the Senates most powerful staffer.
But McCue is also a rare species in Washington, which is a fully formed human being, according to the Republican media adviser Mark McKinnon, who was on the search committee that selected McCue for the ONE job. She doesnt need the mirror of politics to reflect who she is. Not that her new assignment with the ONE campaign isnt intensely political. McCue cant legally lobby her former boss, or anyone else in Congress, for two years, thanks to new ethics rules. Still, as the campaign seeks to restore a $1 billion funding shortfall for foreign aid and development programs in this years budget, her prodigious network of Capitol Hill relationships sure cant hurt.
Most of all, her deep bond with Reid, who will have a major say in how Congress spends money, could pay dividends. Thats particularly true given Reids penchant for remembering his friends. If theres one thing about Harry Reid, says Frank Fahrenkopf, a Republican lawyer and former RNC chair whos known the Senate leader since their high school days in Nevada, hes very loyal.
Political leaders typically have long lists of official advisers, but it can often be the less formal confidants who wield the real power. And, according to a San Francisco friend of the family, Nancy Pelosis most influential informal adviser, after her husband, is her second-to-oldest daughter, Christine.
A lawyer by training, Christinewhos forty but seems youngerhas always been by far the most political of the four Pelosi daughters. Friends describe her as tough, disciplined, ferociously well organized, and highly intelligentwith a weakness for pop culture. Shes very good at putting together systems that make everything work better, says Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), for whom she worked as chief of staff until 2005.
Pelosi spent the last two years working with the labor union AFSCME to run a campaign boot camp intended to turn promising progressive challengers into polished, sound-bite-ready contenders for office. The results were impressive: twelve of the thirty new Democratic House freshmen attended her training. She also was crucial to the Democrats much-praised effort to make gains among military voters, helping to create the Veterans and Military Families Council, which played a key role in several major Democratic wins, including Jim Webbs. Christine is a heavyweight independent of Nancy, says another San Francisco friend.
Still, theres nothing like having your mother become speaker of the House to up your influence overnight. Christine, of course, plays down her role. [My mother] has a great staff, she says. She doesnt need me. And its not likely that mother and daughter spend all their private time talking shop. But few are better than Christine at switching those gears and becoming a sounding board, as a friend puts it. No doubt in the next few years theyll have a lot to talk about.
The first Clinton presidential run was characterized by gab-happy advisers and a shoot-from-the-hip style. A decade and a half later, the third Clinton presidential campaign lies in the hands of Patti Solis Doyle, a woman who seems congenitally allergic to the spotlight. Solis Doyle is the director of Clintons fund-raising operation, which includes her leadership committee, HillPAC, and her Senate committee, Friends of Hillary (FOH). She typically operates behind the scenes, directing a phalanx of assistants and researchers, sweet-talking Democratic donors, and hammering out strategy with the candidate herself.
Some Democrats outside Hillaryland say Clintons reliance on a small coterie of advisers stifle the creativity and energy needed to capture the nomination. But that complaint may miss the point. The current systemtypified by the fiercely competitive Solis Doyle at the topreflects the value Clinton places on loyalty and discipline.
Solis Doyle, the sixth child of Mexican immigrants, met Clinton when the latter was still the first lady of Arkansas. The two have rarely worked apart since then. Since Hillary Clinton was first elected senator, Solis Doyle has masterminded an ambitious effort to build a potential donor list numbering in the hundreds of thousands; HillPAC collected close to $3 million last cycle alone. The PAC also bankrolls Clintons vast political operation of consultants, staffers, researchers, and policy wonks. Political campaigns are built on favors and relationships; Solis Doyle has spent years cultivating those for Hillary Clinton.
Various factors did in the Democrats last attempt to pass universal health care, in 1993. But perhaps the most important was the opposition of health insurers, who understood that a publicly funded system would hurt their bottom line. If Democrats want to take a run at the issue over the next two yearsor even start building viable support for the futuretheyll need to figure out how to neutralize that opposition.
Whether theyre successful or not, Laurie Sullivan will be a key player in the process. Sullivan, a veteran Democratic lobbyist, recently ended her professional partnership with the campaign consultant Nick Baldickwho ran John Edwardss 2004 presidential bidto found a new boutique firm, Avenue Solutions. She appears to have all but cornered the market on representing the interests of major health insurers in Washington: she counts Aetna, BlueCross BlueShield, Medco, and United Health Group, among other big names, as clients. At the same time, though shes never worked on Capitol Hill, Sullivan has very close ties to the new Senate leadership, according to another leading Democratic lobbyist. Sullivan grew up in a union household in Connecticut, but spent a decade doing legal and government relations work at Aetnas corporate headquarters. She built her influence through a long history of Democratic Party activism, both in Washington and Connecticut, and is particularly tight with the states two Democratic senators, Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd, and their staffs. But Sullivans Democratic bona fides dont necessarily mean shell be a force for cooperation between her clients and Congress. Depending on how she uses her power, she could be an ally or an adversary for Democrats looking to advance the cause of universal health care. We often disagree, she says of her Democratic friends. But we at least can share perspective.
After six yearsof President Bushs slash-and-burn tax cuts, combined with the GOP Congresss neglect of the tax systems structural problems, reforming the tax code will be near the top of the Democrats agenda. But theres just one problem: Max Baucus, the newchair of the Senate Finance Committee, is a conservative Montanan with a reputation for bucking the party line. Baucuss recent insistence on holding detailed hearings before moving forward with a major Democratic prioritylegislation to give the government the power to negotiate drug prices over Medicaredoesnt augur well for his willingness to be a team player. But that tension could make Russ Sullivan a crucial figure over the next two years.
As the committees staff director, Sullivana tax attorney from Arkansas and onetime law clerk for Hillary Clinton at the Rose law firmwill be the aide with perhaps the biggest direct influence on Democratic tax policy. An experienced but easygoing Hill operator, hes known for his ability to somehow find the lighter side of tax policyWhatever the bill is on the floor, says one Democratic staffer, his briefings are notoriously hilariousand for his good relationships with staffers on both sides of the aisle.
Baucus and Sullivans studiously bipartisan approach has already been evident this session, and not necessarily to Democrats advantage. The party was elected in part on the promise of raising the minimum wagean overwhelmingly popular position. But after the House had easily passed a minimum-wage hike in mid-January, Baucus sponsored a GOP-backed provision that would have tied any raise to tax breaks for businessessomething House Democrats had made it clear they could not support. The move put the House and Senate on a collision course that, as of last month, could delay passage of a key Democratic priority. Sometimes you have to modify your bill, says Sullivan.
Baucus is up for reelection in 08, which means, according to one former Finance Committee staffer, hes going to be movingin directions that will help win him reelection. In other words, to the right. There are some top committee aides who look likely to serve as a check on their bosses more independent instincts (see The Moderator, above). But dont count on that from Sullivan. I work for Max Baucus, he says. Im his agent. The staff here in the Senatewe do what the bosses want.
For the past four years, while Congress has been under almost uninterrupted Republican control, David Walker, a former Arthur Andersen executive and onetime registered Republican, has headed the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the legislative branchs investigative arm. Unfortunately for Walker, during that time the GOP wasnt very interested in oversight. When Walker started doing his job too well, the Republican congressional leadership threatened to cut his funding. That forced Walkers GAO to abandon, among many other projects, its historic lawsuit seeking documents from the vice presidents secret Energy Task Force meetings.
But now the Republicans can no longer cramp his style. Before ousted GOP lawmakers had even started packing up their offices, Walker published an extensive laundry list of investigative prioritiespraised by Democratic leaders like Henry Waxmanfor the next Congress. Topics ranged from entitlement and education programs to intelligence reform and aid for the Gulf coast. But for Walker, perhaps the most pressing issue of the past few years has been the war in Iraq, where his son has served. Hes repeatedly pushed for a full accounting of Pentagon spending, and blasted the departments atrocious financial management and lax supervision of military contractors.
Executive-branch incompetence isnt Walkers only target. Hes also railed against the public and politicians alike for their myopia on budget issuesand he spent the first few weeks of the 110th Congress tirelessly promoting fiscal accountability everywhere from Capitol Hill to 60 Minutes. Walkers support will be invaluable to Democrats in their oversight role, since his conservative credentials will make it harder for Republicans to characterize the investigations as partisan. Hes likely to be the most welcome and frequent guest at Democratic-controlled hearings since John Dean.
Additional reporting by Christopher Hayes and Avi Klein.